This was originally published at The Rumpus on February 1, 2017.
Jade Sharma’s debut novel is like a blister: It hurts, but I’m obsessed with it.
Problems is the first print title published by Emily Books, an imprint of Coffee House Press. Maya, the book’s narrator, spends a substantial amount of time feeling pretty sure her husband is about to leave her. She’s otherwise doing some quick mental calculations, dividing how much heroin she maybe just did with the number of days—starting later—that she’s sure she’ll last without jonesing for more.
From Problems’s first brief description I knew I had to try it, that saying no would have made me deeply, irredeemably uncool. Like any quality hit, partaking was both totally painless and seemingly harmless, brimming with one analgesic coping mechanism after another. Sharma laces her prose with a particularly strong strain of dark humor, leaving elegant signatures on every page with the abandon of a drunk hostess who’s been handed a blank prescription pad, granted immunity, and charged with a divine imperative to make sure everyone has a good time. The high lasts for several hours, and the company—patently addicted though Maya may be—is a riot.
I never thought about anything quite like Maya did, which made her unnervingly attractive. Blisters are weirdly alluring—redundantly, predictably sore from making yesterday’s mistake over and over and over again, demanding attention, breaking skin, ruining all hope of dressing for the job you want in professional shoes. No matter how addicted she gets, Maya’s problems never erode her desire to make something of herself or out of her suffering. If nothing else, she never stops aspiring, forever after towards a shiny new tomorrow, to adopt a different problem set someday.
I caught up with Sharma over email last fall; this is a condensed version of our correspondence. I’d alert readers to spoilers, but Maya spoils her own story so frequently by accurately predicting the consequences of her actions—albeit with the slight catch of being largely powerless to reroute any of those choices accordingly—that I’ll consider this warning enough.
The Rumpus: I loved what you wrote for Lit Hub on trying to be happy about the publication of Problems. Has the tension resolved at all between whether or not your debut is a big deal? Did Lauren Holmes help?
Jade Sharma: There is no world where getting a rave review in the Times by L. Holmes is NOT a big deal. No matter what I do that’s something I will always have. I never thought I would be in the Times unless I committed a small but very strange crime.
At the same time, it’s me, so it becomes a series of grays: Did they only review my book to include an Indian woman writer? Does it matter? Does anything matter when there is so much going on in the world? Do people read, like really, do they read? Why is everything about me?
I remember when the late D. Foster Wallace committed suicide, I was baffled. He had gained everything any writer would want: critical acclaim, sales, being considered “cool.” So why would he do that? My mentor David Gates illuminated how, when someone suffers from depression, getting accolades can be disorienting. The world thinks you’re great, but that’s not what you feel inside, so that discrepancy only exaggerates feeling confusion or loneliness.
When I had that conversation with David, I felt this anger toward D. Foster Wallace. “Why did you take this away? Why did you take away this dream that I would be okay if I accomplished my goals?” Obviously I’m in a different league or even galaxy, but I get it now. There is this separation of the self where you can feel confident in your talent, but the other self feels like you’re a fraud and a failure. Bipolar makes you have dark thoughts and it’s not cured by money, accolades, or success. It’s treated with meds and therapy.
No, Lauren Holmes wholly transformed what I could ever dream of. I always imagined just being in the “Briefly Noted” section, like that was the biggest I could go. Now I have to make the next one fucking amazing. She made my dreams come true, and she motivated the hell out of me.
I can’t say thank you because I know she didn’t do me a favor; she did her job. But on a human level, I can’t help but feel like she connected with my book and understood it in a deep way. That makes me incredibly moved, and I’m lucky that she happened to write for the Times.
Rumpus: Maya has a heroin addiction. She also has an eating disorder, a mental illness, and an extramarital affair. If these are all symptoms, what’s the disease?
Sharma: The disease is Maya. Whatever shaped hole takes hold, drug-sized or food-sized or man-sized, at the end of the day, those are all symptoms of a void inside her.
She is mentally ill but that’s where it gets gray. Where does a person start and a mental illness begin? Are you not a morning person because you just aren’t, or is it because you suffer from insomnia, which is a symptom of bipolar? People with mental illnesses may think the thrill of self-destruction, living in the moment, and not succumbing to the norms of society is a part of who they are.
Rumpus: One attitude that’s up for debate as either a chemically imbalanced exaggeration or just her own authentic opinion is Maya’s tendency to think her otherwise attractive husband, Peter, is pretty much the worst.
Given the extent of Maya’s addiction and its concentric circles of deceit, how much of her marriage should have been worth salvaging? Was Peter the worst? Or was any obstacle between Maya and the next hit going to be decimated by the self-fulfilling prophecy of her fear that he would abandon her?
Sharma: I’ve heard readers say that Maya sabotaged her marriage and created distance because she had this self-fulfilling prophecy. But then again, readers can see evidence that there is something to Peter knowing about Maya’s issues and still being with her. He doesn’t drag her to get help like some husbands would. But how much does Peter really know, as Maya lies to him constantly?
Peter leaving, I think, is the curveball. Why does he decide to leave her then? Is he just tired of her bullshit? Is it because he knows more about Maya’s dysfunction than she knows and he doesn’t want to put up with it? Is it the lying? That was difficult to write. I wanted it to seem to come out of nowhere for Maya, but it also has to seem real to the reader. You have to make sure people buy it.
What is most striking is that Maya isn’t as shocked that Peter leaves her, but that it hits her and sets her on her downward spiral, which is the narrative shape of the book. Why is she so shaken by Peter leaving when she tells us she suspects it will end just like this, and she has been cheating?
I did feel writing it that I didn’t make Peter layered enough. I didn’t want to make him a stick-figure-type of character like the way men have drawn women. But since Maya was narrating, I struggled with Peter. To Maya, Peter is background, one-dimensional, and an idiot.
I’m sure someone like John Updike could have made Peter as vivid and layered yet still have Maya’s perception, but I’m not Updike. I tried to write like Updike and it was garbage.
Rumpus: I triple underlined what Maya says after the professor she’s been having an affair with ends things, claiming they’re living in two different universes: “Behind every crazy woman is a man sitting very quietly, saying, ‘What? I’m not doing anything.'”
(2) What do you make of sanity as the erasure of emotion? What is it about this particularly delusional, self-appointed vision of maleness—sitting very quietly, not doing anything—that helps men position themselves as the standard-bearers of sanity?
Sharma: I think men and women process things differently. Men become introverted when they feel emotions. Women want to talk it out. There’s nothing more frustrating for a woman than to be pouring out emotion and to be met with a stone face.
So this idea of a man who just turns off, basically being passive aggressive, and manipulates women. In our society it’s become a cartoon: this woman yelling while the kids are being crazy and the man is reading the paper.
Really, women are more attuned with their emotions and with expressing them. Men aren’t. We have this idea that if you’ve conquered your emotions or you’re able to repress them, it means you have your shit together. It’s only been my personal experience that the person who is being the loudest and most emotional is the most sensitive, and the person who is acting like nothing is wrong is the jerk who’s provoking her. It’s not necessarily a female/male dynamic, but it usually is.
Rumpus: After Maya loses her part-time bookstore job and starts supporting her drug habit with sex work, her biggest fear isn’t the transaction of sex-for-pay or an ethical misgiving or the threat of strangers. “My biggest fear,” Maya says, “is they’ll look at me and think, Oh god, she’s not that hot.”
Maybe that’s the eating disorder talking, but something about that line also felt basic and instinctive to me. It didn’t surprise me that she’d still want men to be attracted to her, regardless of the circumstances. How often is Maya normalizing what’s happening to her like this, shifting every new low into an ordinary concern?
Sharma: Anything becomes normal—or at least you don’t stop being who you are—depending on your situation. Maya does fear the regular shit you would fear, but normalizing is always the way to make people relate to a pretty unusual circumstance. No girl ever wants to be told they are not that hot in person.
It’s just that constant voice women have in their minds. Especially in New York, where on every corner there are like, two women who look like actual supermodels, and three who don’t even seem to be trying but look hot as fuck. It’s like early afternoon and you pass this woman who looks crazy trendy and hot and put together and you’re like: “What is your story? I’m basically wearing a step up from pjs, and you put this whole ensemble together showing off your perfect body and you just, like, chill and walk around looking amazing?”
It really feels like a television show. You’re the extra a woman passes that makes her briefly feel better about herself.
Rumpus: Maya pictures herself more than once as a movie star surrounded by extras. Do you think this is a way people born after the mid- to late-80s have been trained to think? Is it connected to this feeling of never being or having enough?
Sharma: Television and film have become a narrative device in how we think about the world. Like, I cleaned my apartment this afternoon. When I described it, I was like, “You know, it’s like the montage of the girl cleaning her apartment.”
I think it’s a way of connecting to the world through TV/film, but it’s also a disconnecting way to do it. Thinking of yourself as a character on a TV show distances the reality of the actual present state of being.
When I was a kid I had a really tough time, so I developed this insane imagination. I would ride my bike late at night and pretend I was in a professional bike race and someone was closing in on me. Then I would lay in the grass in the backyard and I would imagine a narration: “As a child she would lay with sweat pouring off of her as she stared at the stars…’ I was having this super rough time, so I made myself special. I imagined that one day, my life would be a documentary and I would end up being a big star.
I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve seen enough to know that it was a coping mechanism. I tried to see my childhood from a distance, through a lens, as if all the pain in my life would lead me to some kind of greatness.
In a less metaphorical way, watching things through a lens—like filming a wedding—is a great way to put a barrier between yourself and reality.
So I think for Maya, it’s the same thing. Sometimes she imagines her life is this movie or show and she’s the main character as a coping mechanism to add meaning (film always leads to something, like a story) and distance (we’re all just playing a role). It’s a fun game to avoid confronting reality.
But it doesn’t have to be so deep. Sometimes it’s fun to put on your headphones and imagine the streets as a music video.
Rumpus: After Maya describes, in excruciating detail, how heroin fashions a transcendent pleasure out of plucking ingrown hairs from her body one by one, she says, “It was not obvious to me that this was an insane way to spend the majority of my time.”
What’s at stake with this sanity metric, versus the stereotypical crazy chick and the emptier notion of her overemotional hysteria? When does “not obvious” trip over into undeniable?
Sharma: It’s what alcoholics call a moment of clarity, or what William Burroughs called Naked Lunch, which he described (paraphrasing) as: the moment everyone looks down at their fork.
We have these moments where we see life from this alien place, when you’re looking at things outside yourself. It’s not like so much shit has to go wrong for her to notice. She’s always noticing. There are moments people have like, “We are these beings on a fucking rock…”
She could just think, “Damn, I spend forever tweezing,” but instead she has this very clear observation that’s more from a perspective of this bleak application, watching this seemingly frivolous activity she does.
Rumpus: I took this as a working thesis for the novel: “Beauty or meaning is not intrinsic to suffering. But if you can take the suffering and find the parts that are funny or profound, you can create your world into something that might be entertaining for someone else for a while. Eventually, maybe, that time will have been useful. More useful than, like, working in a bank.”
I don’t know what your early drafts looked like, but Problems certainly read to me like you’d gone back through the manuscript and scrubbed it clean, until all that was left were alternating moments of humor and insight. Was that a conscious task you posed to yourself, or something you noticed yourself doing midway and then chose to call out?
Sharma: I do realize that is a writer/reader type of passage, if you were looking for one that fits this novel. It does digress and touch on so many different issues that you could say Maya has. The very best she can think of is to make something out of her suffering.
As to the process of writing the book, it’s close to what you described, but more like I wrote it from beginning to end while revising like a madman every few pages. The first paragraph was the one I started with, but it’s been revised so many times that it went full circle. I ended up back pretty much where I started.
You’re right that it is supposed to be these passages of insight, humor, or observation, which is why the format is important. The “floating blocks” with spaces in between signal to the reader not to expect straight continuity. My favorite parts of books are the digressions or insights. Sometimes I skim over descriptions. My weakness is description, so I didn’t want to write a book where a lot of the writing would involve coming up with segues between actual scenes. I figured I’d just write the scenes or the dialogue.
Also, I wanted it to be read with ease. I felt like the easiest way for me to write it would be the easiest way for others to digest it.
Rumpus: One of the conclusions Maya draws from the sum total of her experiences is this: “Being alone, figuring out how to make the hours go, satiating your own wrestling human heart, means you never have to hide or be numb again.”
How ever-after does that happily last? If “Time is the only way to see the truth, to know if this is a way toward interesting stories or a way toward a ruined life,” has time deliberated that Maya had interesting stories after all?
Sharma: It’s a good question. It depends if you find her story interesting or totally boring and a waste of time, like a few people on Goodreads who had enough time to review it as “disgusting garbage that was a waste of time.” Instead of like, just returning it to Amazon and saying they accidentally bought it.
I do think the “being alone” passage is a central theme. To be a girl and to be alone, even in our modern world, is brave within itself.
I didn’t want a man to save Maya. I didn’t want the narrative to be finding love, or a story where a man is the bow at the end. I wanted her to be at the bottom, totally alone. I think for a lot of women, including myself, there’s a conniption to being alone: you’re unwanted by men, or you’re so crazy they run away, or people think it’s sad. Men can end up alone and we think, “Good for them.” I wanted it to be good for Maya.
I also didn’t want it to be the cliché, “First you have to love yourself before you can love someone else,” because that’s bullshit. I don’t even know how you love yourself since you are yourself, you know? We know all the faults and weaknesses and shitty things we think and careless ways we can be.
It’s more about accepting the truth, and the truth is we have to live with ourselves one hundred percent of the time. For someone like Maya, that can be hellish. But once you shred the hippie dippy bullshit surrounding that idea and really take in the true meaning—that you are okay, that you can be alone and be okay—then what else is there to fear?
Seriously, all we have is ourselves and what we make out of our life and then we are gone. For most of the time we know Maya, it’s like the opposite idea of carpe diem. Maybe if she’s alone and she can be okay, she can start having a life and, as she wishes, “new problems.”
Rumpus: How integral were mentoring and encouragement to the writing of this book? What is it like to write without one or the other?
Sharma: Lack of encouragement has been a huge motivator for me.
When I went into fiction, no one in my family encouraged me. They pretty much wrote me off as a total failure. Even though I worked very hard on the book, they imagined I was lazy. I literally was told right before the book was realized that I was lazy and should get my act together. Though there is some vindication with the Times review, none of my family, aside from my mother, have said congratulations. They just think I write dirty shit and it’s like a fluke.
It hurts and I hate it, but I also would have never finished the book, or even started it, unless I truly believed in my talent. I met a lot of kids who had supportive families and they were not as good as me. Some of them got good, and maybe some will end up being good, and maybe this is easier to say after getting a rave in the Times. But in hindsight, maybe it was good that no one encouraged me, because I knew from the start that I had to grab the reader from the first sentence. I had to do something special and skillful for the world to care. I got good because I had to get good. I was under no illusion that the world gave a shit about me or any story I had to tell.
I did have some great mentors. Stephen Wright encouraged me when a class reacted badly about the scene where Maya masturbates. He told me to keep writing; I needed to know that. Dale Peck pushed the fuck out of me to finish the thing. He basically said, “Stop fiddling with it. It’s ready.”
My biggest mentor I basically made my mentor: David Gates. He got me writing. I wrote some stories after I read Jernigan because I wanted to show him that I was worthy, and then we emailed back and forth about different stuff.
David believed in me and was strong for me. When I was really, really sick, it was his emails asking me questions about how my doctor’s visits were going that made me stay sane. He always encouraged treatment for my bipolar and would respond to my emails when things were bad. I told him that I had failed to write Jernigan Pt.2, that I didn’t have the chops he had, that I wasn’t as bright. He said he loved the book. When I was writing it, I imagined David would be reading it, and that motivated me to make sure it was not shit. That’s why it’s a short book.
I wanted David to read the best parts I had to offer. No filler or bullshit. That’s what I felt he had given me with Jernigan: it just rang true in so many ways that I could feel it. David is a middle aged white dude and I’m this young Indian woman who felt this clear connection with David’s book. He made me feel less alone.
I hope someone feels that way about my book. At the end of the day that’s the best any writer can hope for: that it makes someone feel a little less alone for a little while.
Author photograph © Tracie Williams.